Women in ministry: A variety of gifts

Published November 1, 2001

Rev. Shirley Shouldice

Twenty-five years ago, on Nov. 30, 1976, the first six women were ordained to the priesthood in the Anglican Church of Canada. In this, the second article commemorating this anniversary, the Journal asks if there is an identifiable female style of ministry. Then a range of experiences from women priests is presented, using the words of people interviewed.

One of the arguments supporting the ordination of women is that the church – or any faith – should use the gifts of all its members. However, the question of whether women bring something different to the pulpit receives a variety of answers.

In the “yes” camp is Archdeacon Barbara Clay, rector of the parish of St. Laurence in Coquitlam, B.C., diocese of New Westminster. “One of the blessings of the ordination of women is that we’ve brought a different style to ministry, more of a shared experience instead of ‘father knows best,'” she said.

However, the consensus style of leadership isn’t exclusive to women, said Archdeacon Clay, and some women can also be autocratic. “We’ve seen that model in our church and some women buy into that,” she said.

Asked if women minister differently, Bishop Ann Tottenham of the diocese of Toronto, said she “would hope so. I think a collaborative style comes more naturally to women.” In her experience, she said, more men than women feel comfortable being authoritarian.

Bishop Victoria Matthews, of the diocese of Edmonton, said she has seen a different tone in clergy gatherings. “When the clergy used to get together, it was a male club. There is a certain dynamic to that.

“They saw it as a chance to let down their hair and when women arrived, that changed.”

Rev. Jennifer Gosse, rector of the parish of Cartwright, Labrador in the diocese of Eastern Newfoundland and Labrador, said, “Some people say to me, ‘It’s nice to have a woman; it’s easier to talk to a woman.’ Women say that especially, but that might be stereotypical.”

While some feel that women have brought a more collaborative style to ministry, Rev. Cheryl Watson, of the parish of Tyendinaga in the diocese of Ontario, thinks a changing society is equally responsible.

“Being part of a team suits my style, but I think ministry has changed. The men remember the days when they could walk down the street and smile and be given respect.

“Today, some people don’t recognize the collar. Society has changed. It’s not to do with being a woman,” she said.


“There were so few of us (in 1976). I got threatening letters. I got mutilated photos of myself. The abusive stuff can be really scary if it comes to your home. Some of it was frankly psychotic.”

“I had grown up in a church where I never saw women do anything but sing in the choir. Had I had any female role models, I would have known earlier I wanted to be ordained.”

Rev. Mary Lucas, diocese of Niagara

“It was a time when people came to terms with women in other fields. Most opposition came from other women, but I never had any opposition within the parish. One woman said, ‘You’ll be late getting home to make supper for your husband.’ I replied that no, my husband can make supper.

“I was priested in 1979, when I was 50. I’d been a bishop’s messenger in three different parishes. Our parishes are so far-flung, the man was run ragged, so I became a deacon so I could take the reserved sacrament and the congregation could take the sacrament. I remember talking to my husband (about ordination) and he said, ‘Go for it.’ It seemed to be a way of serving the parish better.”

Rev. Betty Garrett, retired, diocese of Qu’Appelle

“I believe I was called by God. But some people prefer men to do certain things – funerals, marriages – fine, that’s all right. They like the old, traditional way and it’s hard to break that way. The biggest problem is acceptance, but we have come a long way. A minor problem is that some of our women are very weak in their leadership and if you are weak, if you don’t have organizing skills, or assertiveness, you are in for it.”

Archdeacon Lydia Constant, diocese of Brandon

“The priest where I grew up didn’t agree (with women’s ordination), but he changed his mind and I never felt anything but encouragement. I got more training from him than at theological college.

“(At the parish, on the coast of Labrador) we don’t have a funeral home. I’m automatically the funeral director. I’ve laid out bodies in caskets, nailing (the lids) down. They don’t teach you that in theological college – whether you can operate a Ski-Doo, handle a little boat.”

Rev. Jennifer Gosse, diocese of Eastern Newfoundland and Labrador

“I love this job. In some places, I’m a novelty, such as the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops, or dinner with three cardinals and the Archbishop of Canterbury. But I’ve never faced any rudeness.”

Canon Alyson Barnett-Cowan, director of Faith, Worship and Ministry and ecumenical officer, national church office in Toronto

“(At one parish) they couldn’t figure out how to address me. Father Alice? Pastor? Padre? Madre Alice? There was admiration, but suspicion. Then the bishop made me a canon and they had a name to call me – Canon Medcof.”

Canon Alice Medcof, diocese of Toronto

“Whether God is male or female is not an issue with me. I don’t see God in terms of male or female, but as a nurturing love. We used female imagery in a hymn at synod and some people got upset, but not me.”

“Some of the smaller congregations would rather I stood up there and did the priestly thing; they object when I come down to the nave to preach. They think you should be up there dressed as a priest. Others are as different as night and day – one wants to be touchy/feely and would just as soon I arrived in my shorts.”

Rev. Cheryl Watson, diocese of Ontario

“I was told that ‘it would be much better for us if we had a man priest in this parish.’ But another woman said to me, ‘I’m not sure I want a woman priest,’ but she stayed and later she said she was glad she did.”

Rev. Shirley Shouldice, diocese of Ontario


  • Solange DeSantis

    Solange De Santis was a reporter for the Anglican Journal from 2000 to 2008.

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